Harvey shows how planetary winds are shifting

Changing patterns fuel storms' staying power

Bloomberg, AP

Hurricane Harvey is just one of several recent weather disasters marked by shocking staying power, punishing whole regions for days or weeks on end — or even longer.

Others include a massive heat wave over Russia and flooding in Pakistan in 2010, the Texas drought of 2011, the California drought that began around the same time and continued through this year, and the flooding last year in Texas’s neighbor to east, Louisiana.

When Harvey stalled off the Texas coast because two high-pressure atmospheric masses — bookends made out of air — squeezed it in place, there weren’t any high-level currents to help steer it away.

Sluggishness in storms is a big deal, particularly if they are increasing in frequency.

“It turns a garden-variety disaster into a catastrophe,” said Paul Douglas, a broadcast meteorologist and weather entrepreneur.

Harvey’s floodwaters started dropping across much of the Houston area on Wednesday and forecasters had downgraded it to a tropical depression, but it still had lots of rain and potential damage to spread on the Gulf Coast. The confirmed death toll climbed to at least 31, including six family members — four of them children — whose bodies were pulled Wednesday from a van that had been swept off a Houston bridge into a bayou.

As Harvey stays put, it functions as a firehose that sucks warm water from the Gulf of Mexico and the atmosphere and dumps it inland.

Just to be clear, climate change itself is no longer up for debate — both in the scientific community and among national governments (with few notable exceptions). Understanding it is relatively simple. Global average temperatures are rising. There is at least 4 percent more water vapor in the air than 70 years ago. Ice sheets are melting. Seas are swelling. These phenomena are the direct effects of warming, and humans are causing it.

“That’s the part of the science everyone agrees about,” said Adam Sobel, professor of applied physics and math, and Earth science, at Columbia University.

What experts don’t agree on, however, is whether — or how much — man-made climate change is responsible for this meteorological stickiness that has kept Harvey over southern Texas.

The questions scientists are now asking about stalling storms aren’t along the lines of “did climate change cause the hurricane?” Climate change didn’t cause the hurricane. But today’s warmer water and more humid air provided it with rocket fuel, making it more intense, and humanity did conjure those conditions.

Instead, the experts are asking how huge, “dynamic” atmospheric systems may be changing, at least indirectly, because of humanity’s prodigious greenhouse gas pollution. So, a better question might be, “Does humanity have anything to do with summertime Northern Hemisphere storms that are prevented from moving off because of changes in the jet stream?” The answer is there is not enough evidence yet.

Michael Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University, published an essay Monday in which, among items better understood about hurricanes and warming, he included:

“More tenuous, but possibly relevant still, is the fact that very persistent, nearly ‘stationary’ summer weather patterns of this sort, where weather anomalies […] stay locked in place for many days at a time, appears to be favored by human-caused climate change.”

In March, Mann and several colleagues published a study in the journal Scientific Reports that demonstrates a relationship between extreme events, such as the 2011 Texas drought and 2010 Pakistan flooding, and a rare stationary phase that upper atmospheric currents sometimes go through in the mid-latitudes.

Stefan Rahmstorf, a co-author of that paper and head of Earth Systems Analysis at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, explained that there may really be several things going on. In general, the jet stream, the high-flying river of air that flows west-to-east, has slowed and gone all wavy in recent summers, with pronounced north-south meanders. That is one thing that may have helped hold Harvey in place. Researchers have sparred since 2012 over whether Arctic warming, which is occurring at twice the global average, is driving this atmospheric wobble, consequently creating more opportunities for persistent weather farther south.

In a number of extreme cases analyzed by their paper — California’s drought, Russia’s 2010 heat wave and Pakistan’s related flood — the meandering north-south river of the jet-stream stabilizes for periods of time in some places, creating an insurmountable wavelike band. The researchers looked for some kind of misbehavior in atmospheric circulation after realizing that heat-related effects alone couldn’t explain the extreme nature of some disasters.

Not everybody is sold on either the general jet-stream wobbliness from a warming Arctic, or the stabilizing atmospheric waves described by Mann, Rahmstorf, and colleagues. “It’s still controversial,” Sobel said. Even Mann, the lead-author, introduced the pattern as “tenuous,” and Rahmstorf said that more real-world case studies and more years of observations are needed.

With Houston still under siege and the hurricane season still churning, the thought of more case studies is the last thing anybody wants to consider. And yet, just as it took decades to prove climate change, time and more studies will likely show whether humans have gone beyond global warming, and in fact changed which way the wind blows.